Updated: Nov 7, 2022
How do you handle a new player joining an ongoing campaign? What can you, as a player, keep in mind when joining an existing group?
Some people are lucky enough to be with a group for years, without any need to change the line-up. Others may be lucky enough to be able to start a new group from scratch. But sometimes – many times – you might find yourself joining an existing group or campaign. And with that come a lot of potential pitfalls.
Most times, when I join a group, or when players join my groups, we’re starting a new campaign, and usually a brand-new system. I’ve only joined a gaming group as a newbie once, when I first moved to LA. I was subletting, living with a couple of UCLA students. I was lucky enough to find out my roommates at the time had a D&D group of their own. I rolled up a character (the half-elf son of Calvin Dugray – not that anyone in that group knew or cared who that was, but it was important to me), and dove into the group.
The first hiccup came when I described my character to our GM, Chris, and got to the cool traits my background gave me, and he said, “Oh, we’re not using those.”
It’s a bummer to be told that a cool +2 you got for your backstory won’t actually be part of the game, but I was ultimately fine with it – different groups have different preferences, and 4th Edition D&D didn’t put too much emphasis on backgrounds; had I been the only one with a bonus like that, I can understand the feeling that it might mess with the balance of the characters.
So, I adjusted my character, the first game session arrived, I met up with our group, and I… was totally lost. Our group encountered someone who had clearly been a recurring villain, someone who replaced parts of his body with mechanical limbs and became a sort of Steampunk Iron Man. And this was someone the other players clearly had a history with, because they had a rage as soon as they saw him. He was far more powerful than us, and managed to get away alive.
It seemed like a big moment, but I had no idea of the context, so for me, it felt a bit flat.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see mistakes made by both the DM and myself. I’ll get to what Chris could have done differently in a moment, but looking back, I wish I’d done everything differently.
If you imagine an ongoing game as a serialized television series – as I often do – then we can approach this by examine how TV shows introduce new faces. When you think about shows like Lost, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or any other show that frequently adds new cast members, it’s easy to see what makes a new character beloved – this person has to be important.
The easy trap to fall into is just introducing the new character in a tavern, or on the road, with the other player characters saying, “Hey, you’re a random stranger, but do you want to come along with us and join our fellowship to destroy the Dark Lord/gang of hired mercenaries/wandering band of Murder Hobos?” And because you have already agreed to play D&D, you will say yes, and just join the group without incident.
But that’s not what TV shows do – they introduce someone, we learn why this person might be important/relevant to what’s going on. Maybe they are also after the same bad guys, or maybe they have a familiar relationship with one of the main cast members. Maybe they have information critical to the story, or previously worked for the villain.
You can even go back to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and see this at work. Tommy Oliver, the Green Ranger, is still one of the most beloved characters from the series, and a huge part of that is because his introduction felt important. He literally entered the cast by kicking down the back door of the Megazord and beating the stuffing out of the Power Rangers – and he made his premiere in a five-part storyline named after him (well, his primary color, anyway). From day one, that dude was a BIG DEAL.
Now, does that mean you have to have your new character kick everyone else’s butts in order to prove what a badass he is? Of course not. (In fact, please don’t.) But it does mean you should consider integrating your character to the story already in place… and give your character a reason to hang around. Maybe your new group isn’t in the middle of a long campaign, but you still need to have a good reason to be around these strangers. And your meeting should be more than a moment of convenient timing – it should be something you can actually roleplay. You don't need to do the funny voices, but there should be some dramatic reason why your characters are interacting.
New characters should feel like a big deal. Unless you’re watching a procedural show like Law and Order or Grey's Anatomy, where it makes sense that new people would be hired with little to no fanfare, then there needs to be a good reason to introduce characters. I can only think of one example of a TV show introducing new characters with no context or meaning:
But Lost added new cast members nearly every season, and aside from the much-maligned Nikki and Paulo, they usually did it very well. When the tail section survivors were introduced in season 2, they were not on good terms with most of our castaways, and the two groups had to find a way to co-exist. That’s an interesting story, ripe for potential, and there’s no reason not to blatantly steal that idea for your own game.
If you want your character to feel like a part of the setting, then give them something that matters. Maybe they can be related to one of the NPCs the other characters already know, or even directly related to one of the other PCs themselves. Talk to your group in advance, and see if there’s a way to integrate yourself into the group, the story, or the world.
Of course, some of this is the responsibility of the DM. After all, it’s their job to keep the story moving, and to bring the main characters together. Which is why I’d like to call myself out for screwing that up at least once.
When I put together my Los Angeles campaign, it took several sessions to establish our final group – people kept coming and going, and I had to justify why people were missing sessions or joining the group. The final player to join, Niels, came on board a few sessions after everyone else. He came to me with a cool hook – someone had been burning his god’s shrines, so he had followed their trail.
I decided that the shrines had been burned by the goblins the party had just fought, led by a necromancer they had just killed. It gave Niels’ character an excuse to join up with our characters (he had tracked them from the battle), and to get him involved in the story. And I thought I’d done my job pretty well…
… That is, until about a year later, when he casually mentioned that he was still curious who had been burning those shrines.
And that’s when I realized I’d screwed up.
I had resolved the mystery of who had been at fault, but I’d done it off-screen – so it wasn’t a satisfying resolution for his character's story. He didn’t even remember that I’d blamed it on the necromancer. And why would he? He’d never even met that necromancer. Niels had come to the table with one mission, tied into his backstory, and I’d hand-waved it away so we could get to the main plot.
At that point, I just integrated it into the story, and hung the evil acts on the henchmen of the Big Bad. Sure, Niels could kill as many of those random minions as I threw at him, but the villain could keep sending more bad guys to burn more shrines. And by this point in the campaign, I’d already made them hate the Big Bad, so it was just more fuel to feed that hate-flame.
Had I been in the same position today, I would have made sure the culprit was more of a plot point – but not necessarily let Niels come face-to-face with the culprit right away. I would postpone the satisfaction of facing the enemy right away, or at least offered a grander cause, to allow Niels motivation to stay invested in the campaign story arc.
Had I been in that situation now, I’d have blamed the fires on a recurring/major villain – someone Niels' character couldn’t get to, or at least couldn’t kill alone. Then I would have put other obstacles in front of them, before they could get to that major villain – because if I had given him his quarry too early, I’d have taken away any reason for him to still hang out with our characters, and taken away his mission.
Because that’s a lesson I learned the hard way, in that very same session where Niels joined the group...
Because let’s assume your character is properly integrated into the game, and you are able to feel like a part of the storyline. That’s still no guarantee the group is going to work out for you. Because there’s one thing we haven’t touched on yet… and that’s play styles.
Play styles vary so dramatically that I've made multiple videos on this subject, but the general idea is that, since the game can vary so wildly in tone/style from group to group, you may not be a perfect fit with every group you encounter. Some players may not enjoy hack-slash adventures as much as others, or they might have no patience for role-playing. And even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll get along with everybody.
In that same Los Angeles game group I was just discussing, most of the players had limited experience with the game, if any at all. However, one of them – let’s call him Player X – had played before with his father and brothers… and it didn’t take long for me to realize his style was not going to mesh.
Part of my mistake was leaning into Player X’s backstory a bit too much too early on, putting him face-to-face with his most hated enemy in only his second or third session. This meant I didn’t have a chance to break the ice and feel out his style. So, when he found the orc warlord that had slaughtered his people, Player X's character hard-core tortured him.
And this was happening during the same scene where Niels joined the group, so the characters had a lot of exposition to get out of the way. And yet Player X started sending me text messages at the table, saying stuff like, “I fire an arrow into the orc.”
I had two problems with this behavior: First, those are things he should have said out loud. I can understand passing notes to the DM, but torturing someone while everyone is standing around talking about important stuff – that’s information you should definitely share with the class, because it does concern all of them.
Second, he clearly wasn’t engaged in the scene, or being actively involved with the group. I understand he wanted to focus on his enemy, but he wasn’t being respectful or welcoming of Niels. Player X was more interested in his own story than Niels’, and by not giving Niels a chance to role-play his own story, Player X was effectively cutting him out of the group.
When asked about it, Player X straight-up told me he was doing those things because (A) he was used to a different style of game, and (B) he was bored of all the talking. Which, of course, is the main challenge when finding a group. If you’re poorly introduced into a campaign, or your character doesn’t have much attachment to the events going on, you can still have fun with the other players – IF you get along with the other players.
Discussion Question: An easy question for all of you reading along – do any of you have a story of joining an existing group? How did it go? Feel free to share it in the comments!